2008′s top 10 climate stories

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"2008′s top 10 climate stories"

What events, actions, and findings had the most positive or negative impact on the likelihood that the nation and the world will act in time to avoid catastrophic warming?

Since the #1 story is way too obvious to generate any drama, I will start there and then go back and count down from 10 to 2.

1. Team Without Rivals. A year ago, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri, desperately warned, “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” That means the next president and his cabinet, more than any other group, will determine my future and your future and our children’s future, and perhaps the future of the next 50 generations to walk the earth. Fortunately, the American people rejected the old greenwasher and new denier nominated by the Drill, baby, Drill crowd — and now we will be led by the greenest, most scientifically informed, radical pragmatists in the history of the Republic:

Back to the countdown:

10. Gas Pains. As NOAA reported, levels of methane rose sharply in 2007 for the first time since 1998. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, especially over the near term. And the tundra has as much carbon locked away in it as the atmosphere contains today. Scientific analysis suggests the rise in 2007 methane levels came from Arctic wetlands. The tundra melting is probably the most worrisome of all the climate-carbon-cycle amplifying feedbacks — and it could easily take us to the unmitigated catastrophe of 1000 ppm. Though you should also worry that the methane might be coming the underwater permafrost, which is also thawing and releasing methane. Or from the drying of the Northern peatlands (bogs, moors, and mires). If methane rises again in 2008 — and NASA reported another brutally hot year for the Siberian tundra — then that will probably be among the top three global warming stories of 2008.

9. The Thrilla in Vanilla. OK, it wasn’t Ali-Frazier, but Henry Waxman’s smackdown of John Dingell for chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was high drama with high consequences. Finally, we have a champion of serious action and strong regulation, someone who gets the dire nature of global warming, in charge of the crucial committee for climate and energy.

8. Ice, Ice maybe not. Everywhere scientists look, ice is disappearing:

7. The rise of sea level rise: 1 to 2 meters is the new 1 to 2 feet. This year saw major sea level rise reemerge as one of the biggest threats facing humanity this century from unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions (along with desertification). In 2007, the IPCC had advanced a lowball estimate that explicitly ignored the single most important likely contributor to sea level rise this century — “future rapid dynamical changes in ice flow.” That estimate, embraced (and misrepresented) by delayers like Bjorn Lomborg to argue that climate change was no big thing, was based primarily on data and analysis from before 2006. With all the actual melting ice, with the ice sheets appear to be shrinking “100 years ahead of [the IPCC] schedule,” it’s no surprise that 2008 saw so many top climate scientists reject the IPCC estimate and warn of far greater rise in the decades to come:

6. Clean coal ain’t. This was the year Bush and the coal companies mismanaged and underfunded the country’s centerpiece carbon capture and storage (CCS) program, ‘Nevergen’, to death. Most other countries abandoned or slowed down their CCS efforts, while many independent analysts began to express serious skepticism that CCS would be a practical, affordable, and scalable strategy (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“). The industry, however, began a well-funded advertising effort to sell clean coal, with marketing that bordered on Onion-esque self-parody. But a major environmental disaster revealed better than any ad campaign that coal is the dirties of fuels. And the EPA Environmental Appeals Board stopped new coal plants cold by, amazingly enough, realizing that when the Supreme Court ruled carbon dioxide was a pollutant and EPA needed to start regulating it under the Clean Air Act, they meant it — though the Bush administration tried to reversed that ruling and Congress is trying to reverse that reversal.

5. 350 is the new 450. Led by the nation’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, a number of leading scientists argued that the “old” target scientists have been arguing for — stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at 450 ppm — isn’t enough: Stabilize at 350 ppm or risk ice-free planet, warn NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al. In December, America’s leading spokesman for climate action, Al Gore, embraced the 350 ppm target.

4. Clean tech shines. While the rest of the financial system melts down, cleantech venture investment hit a record $2.6B in the third quarter. Is that a lot of money? Well, of that $2.6B, some $1.7B went to U.S. companies, which is about three times the comparable annual R&D budget in the Energy Department office I once ran, the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program, which did — and still does — the bulk of the federal government clean tech funding. And VCs like Kleiner Perkins ramped up funding while the Bush administration gutted some of the most important research and deployment EERE had.

Some key clean technologies really began to shine in 2008, including perhaps the most important low-carbon energy source, solar thermal baseload, and the most important alternative fuel vehicle, electric cars and plug in hybrids. It should now be clear that all the technology we need to stabilize at 450 ppm (or lower) is here or will be in a few years (see “McKinsey 2008 Research in Review: Stabilizing at 450 ppm has a net cost near zero”).

3. Desperate Scientists, Season II. The world’s top climate scientists are once again begging for action, with many more going public to warn just how dire a fate we face on our current path:

2. Conservatives go all in on climate denial and delay. While the grim implications of the science and observational data discussed above have become painfully obvious to everyone else, conservatives simply refuse to accept reality. For instance, even though a very warm 2008 makes this the hottest decade in recorded history by far — and even though 2008 was about 0.1°C warmer than the decade of the 1990s as a whole (even with a La-Ni±a-fueled cool winter) for some deniers, “2008 was the year man-made global warming was disproved.” Seriously.

The entire conservative movement, including pundits, think tanks, and politicians, now appears willing to stake the future of humanity on their willful ignorance.

That’s why the deniers are winning, especially with GOP voters or rather only with GOP voters.

If the Obama climate dream team is going to lead the nation and the world into a World War II scale effort to save humanity from self-destruction, they will be waging a difficult two-front war — against the ever-accelerating reality of climate change itself and against the immovable unreality of “anti-science conservatives.”

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22 Responses to 2008′s top 10 climate stories

  1. guido says:

    best wishes for you and family this year, joe

    you are doing great work!

    nice recap, still not sure why gop believes what it does, it must be a state of self-delusion.

  2. This review does a great job of putting the leading issues into perspective…even for people outside the US.

  3. Dorothy says:

    Joe, you are truly brilliant. There are just not enough adjectives to describe how useful, how interesting, how readable, how accurate your blog is. And I like your bits of dark humour, too.

    What you do is what we should aspire to: to tell the whole truth, all the time. Once humans understand what’s happening to their world, our hard-wired survival instincts will kick in, and we’ll make the decisions that will save us.

    I check in nearly every day, just to get that “yes, we can” feeing. Your postings today are especially relevant. What a great way to start 2009.

    Thank you, enormously.

  4. Wes Rolley says:

    Joe, I went to the public library in my home town this week and noticed an interesting set of books on the shelf. Chris Mooney’s Storm World was flanked by your Hell and High Water and the Michaels / Balling Satanic Gases. It is an interesting juxtaposition. The story that did not make your list, is the one that seems to be making its way into the cerebral cortex of my neighbors is the one that comes from the Cato Institute, the publishers of Satanic Gases… that there is little to worry about with global warming because the rate of increase is slow and will probably be self limiting.

    That this idea has such strong roots is truly frightening. To have a book like that, presented as scientific fact but based on a lie, carrying so much weight means that we have a lot more work to do. I constantly hear people talking about being glad the earth is warming as we won’t have to worry so much about frost. The conceptual gap is still huge.

  5. Terrific list Joe… keep going please, we want to see the top 20.

    You might include the Courts and legal aspects – Last year saw various AGW court cases brewing. I like following the case of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil – a nuisance case that holds carbon fuel industries responsible for global warming. Even if they lose the case, the courts will have labeled responsibility and industry can no longer deny.

    Just like tobacco. “Warning – burning coal releases CO2 and accelerates global warming” Surely big changes in 2009.

  6. Whoa… I hadn’t previously noticed that the last methane spike occurred in 1998, which was a remarkable year in a warming decade.

    Were climate scientists talking about that methane spike as a harbinger of things to come? Or was it explained in another way?

    Just curious.

    ________

    One of the things I like best about Joe’s blog is that even the comments often teach me something.

  7. Jay Alt says:

    Wes -
    At my house, books often become mislaid or misfiled.

  8. civil behavior says:

    Love this blog. Though I cannot always discuss the specific scientific technical details I enjoy reading those more educated than I and I absorb it all.

    I do know one thing, in my 56 years of living I see red flags that are being ignored because the idea of the extent of change necessary frightens those who have taken all we have as an entitlement. I daresay I wonder what it will be that wakes the slumbering masses

  9. Paul K says:

    Joe,
    Let’s hope 2009 is a year of solutions. There is a real frustration expressed in so many comments. Civil behavior wonders what it will be that wakes the slumbering masses. The better question is are there enough who are already awake to make real progress? I think there are.

    The solution is clear. Fossil fuel must be replaced. There is broad agreement on this, if not on the reasons for it. Let’s recognize at least four equally valid (and not mutually exclusive) arguments against our dependence on fossil fuel: climate, environment, economic survival and international security. Let’s focus on the goal.

    Everyone reading this understands the necessity of transitioning to 21st Century Energy. My question is what are you willing to do about it. Here’s what I’m doing. I have formed Replacing Fossil Fuel, an association dedicated to funding deployment of technologies and efficiencies.

    We are sponsoring an Alternative Energy Event on Thursday, January 22nd at the Beverly Arts Center Theater in Chicago. We have assembled an impressive panel of experts in solar, geothermal, architecture, maintenance and energy auditing. The chairman of the Illinois Senate energy committee and other government officials will also be there.

    Nothing would please me more than to have some fans of climateprogress attend.

    A hundred people throwing in as little as $10 a month can provide solar water heating for 4 or 5 Habitat for Humanity houses a year. 1,000 people could provide rooftop PV for those houses. Get 10,000 awake and aware folks to join together and you’ve got the beginnings of a revolution.

  10. paulm says:

    Best for the New Year.

    Are we going to have our cake and eat it?

    Climate scientists: it’s time for ‘Plan B’
    Poll of international experts by The Independent reveals consensus that CO2 cuts have failed – and their growing support for technological intervention

    Many people think/are confident that there will be a technological solution round the corner and so think this is not that big an issue. After all we have managed before….we are taking a huge gamble.

    CO2 Vs Mass extinctions

  11. AlanSmithee says:

    You’re kidding, right? About the new administration, I mean. Do you honestly think “clean coal” fantasies and toxic nuke plants are going to be a boon to “my future and your future and our children’s future, and perhaps the future of the next 50 generations to walk the earth.”

    Or are you just shilling for the dnc again?

  12. Joe says:

    Smithee — Not really a regular reader, are you? And apparently you’ve never heard of hyperlinks. You might try clicking on them some day and learn what I think and what the new Cabinet thinks.

  13. David Lewis says:

    Your list is good. I was beginning to wonder if I’d see someone put the appearance of the 350 ppm target on a New Year’s list as an event worth noting.

    I heard you on the Earthbeat “Climate Year in Review” show with Andy Revkin. I enjoyed the exchange between the host, Mike Tidwell, you, and Revkin over Arctic ice. You: “the IPCC really blew it on sea level rise”. Andy: “Well Joe, I just read the literature differently than you”. And when Tidwell pressed, “Andy… would you agree… this is an accelerated process beyond what most scientists thought was the case ten years ago”, Andy changed the subject. I keep wondering what is going on inside Andy’s head.

    Here’s a quote from an open letter Hansen is sending to Obama via Holdren once Obama is President:

    “urgency now dictates a personal appeal. Scientists at the forefront of climate research have seen a stream of new data in the past few years with startling implications for humanity and all life on earth”.

    Hansen is stating to Obama that if he wants to check on how solid the science is re the 350 ppm target he just has to ask his National Academy of Sciences.

    I wonder if Hansen might say to Andy Revkin: “Well Andy, I just write the literature differently than the way you read it”.

    Re: sea level rise. I think the best assessment is along the lines of what John Holdren gave at ” The American Response to Climate Change””

    “Sea level is now going up at twice the rate of the 20th century, and is expected to accelerate. Nobody knows by how much because we do not understand and can not model the mechanisms by which rising temperature can produce accelerated disintegration of the ice sheets. We do know that it has happened multiple times in the past under climate change forcings that are weaker than the ones we are experiencing today.”

    as it doesn’t state what they clearly don’t know, i.e. a definite figure in meters. Holdren went on, I get the sense he enjoys doing this:

    “We know that melting the Greenland, and Antarctic ice sheets, all of them, would raise global sea level by something like 70 meters. The conventional wisdom has been that would take thousands of years. But we now know that rates of 2 – 5 meters per century are possible because its happened at least twice in the past 19,000 years as a result of natural forcings over that period. These panels [ my note: you have to see the video to see his powerpoint slides ] show what happens to the S.E. United States under a 7 meter rise, that’s if you lose the whole Greenland ice sheet, here’s 12 meters, that’s Greenland and West Antarctica, and here’s 70 meters, if you lose the whole shooting match [ my note: slide shows map of SE U.S., Florida is gone ], and of course, this coastline is no longer recognizable.

    We should all ask what sea level rise means in our region. And this is Cape Cod. This shows what it, i.e. 70 meters would mean to Cape Cod and the Boston area where I live. [ my note: goodbye Cape Cod ]. This always has a dramatic effect on audiences at Harvard and M.I.T.”

    Hansen is getting increasingly sure of himself as he touts the Argonne National Labs design breeder reactor. His third recommendation to Obama was “urgent R&D” into these reactors. He likes it that they can burn the waste that otherwise has to be stored in places like Yucca for 10,000 years, which solves that problem, and it means no more uranium has to be mined for a few centuries even if these reactors were built in quantity. The waste that comes out decays in a few hundred years rather than the tens of thousands, and duh, obviously, in operation there’s no CO2 coming out. He’s still saying if anyone runs any coal plants they have to be CCS. He seems to think the CCS technology exists. I guess one of the groups saying it doesn’t exist, like Gore’s, should go and straighten him out. Eh?

  14. David B. Benson says:

    David Lewis — CCS exists. Its that it is quite expensive still.

    I’m looking into enhanced weathering methods which offer the prospect of doing so for under $15 per tonne of CO2 removed.

  15. msn nickleri says:

    He likes it that they can burn the waste that otherwise has to be stored in places like Yucca for 10,000 years, which solves that problem, and it means no more uranium has to be mined for a few centuries even if these reactors were built in quantity.

  16. online games says:

    What you do is what we should aspire to: to tell the whole truth, all the time. Once humans understand what’s happening to their world, our hard-wired survival instincts will kick in, and we’ll make the decisions that will save us.

  17. cet says:

    evet You’re kidding, right? About the new administration, I mean. Do you honestly think “clean coal” fantasies and toxic nuke plants are going to be a boon to “my future and your future and our children’s future, and perhaps the future of the next 50 generations to walk the earth.”

    Or are you just shilling for the dnc again?

  18. Joe Emplode says:

    Technology won’t save us. God won’t save us. Humankind is not sustainable. Do the math, then gather up your Mad Max gear.

  19. medyum says:

    Though I cannot always discuss the specific scientific technical details I enjoy reading those more educated than I and I absorb it all.

    I do know one thing, in my 56 years of living I see red flags that are being ignored because the idea of the extent of change necessary frightens those who have taken all we have as an entitlement. I daresay I wonder what it will be that wakes the slumbering masses

  20. Foto bugil says:

    Nice info, Useful for my job. Keep up the good work, thanks very much…

  21. Love this blog. Though I cannot always discuss the specific scientific technical details I enjoy reading those more educated than I and I absorb it all.

    I do know one thing, in my 56 years of living I see red flags that are being ignored because the idea of the extent of change necessary frightens those who have taken all we have as an entitlement. I daresay I wonder what it will be that wakes the slumbering masses